Traveling with Trump as he skipped – and skewered – the press dinner

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner gave President Trump an easy opportunity to lambaste the Washington press corps, as our correspondent witnessed while covering his Michigan rally that night. The real problem wasn’t so much the comedian’s raunchy routine, it’s the red-carpet chumminess of the event.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, April 28.

Two days after comedian Michelle Wolf’s raunchy (and to some, offensive) speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Washington is still buzzing about her remarks.

By contrast, President Trump’s campaign-style rally in Michigan Saturday night, staged as counter-programming to the press dinner, was a mostly forgettable 80 minutes.

In fact, I’m probably one of the few who will remember what Mr. Trump said that night. Because I was there.

I had a ticket to the correspondents’ dinner, but the Monitor’s turn to travel with the president and write “pool reports” – dispatches shared with the rest of the press corps – came up, and so I gave my ticket away. Late Saturday afternoon, off I flew to Michigan on Air Force One.

That evening, as my colleagues in the Washington press corps sat uncomfortably through Ms. Wolf’s comedy routine, I watched Trump eviscerate them all, to the delight of his base.

“You may have heard I was invited to another event tonight – the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” Trump began, eliciting boos from the crowd. “But I’d much rather be in Washington, Mich., than in Washington, D.C. right now!”

Several thousand Trump supporters gathered to hear the president at an indoor sports complex, many wearing Make America Great Again caps. We were in Macomb County, birthplace of “Reagan Democrats,” now Trump country. The crowd was mostly white, and skewed older.

And they were ecstatic that Trump had come to see them instead of going to “that dinner,” as attendee Paul Allen put it.

“I like that he’s bringing jobs back to Michigan,” said Mr. Allen, adding that he feels most media is biased, and that he gets his news primarily from YouTube and InfoWars.

Vicki Lewis, a retired art teacher, came to the rally from Westland, Mich., an hour and a half away. She said she had had emergency surgery just a few days before, but “nothing could keep me away.”

Despite Trump’s disdain for the correspondents’ dinner, he had encouraged members of his administration to attend the soiree. But he brought some allies with him on the trip, including senior adviser Stephen Miller and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

I ran into Mr. Lewandowski at Andrews Air Force Base before we left for Michigan, and he echoed his former boss: “I’d rather be doing this than going to the correspondents’ dinner.”

Paul Sancya/AP
President Trump gestures during a campaign-style rally in Washington Township, Mich., April 28.

‘She burns facts’

Much of the controversy surrounding Wolf’s routine stemmed from the fact that she didn’t just tell the expected jokes about Trump and Vice President Mike Pence (who skipped the event too), but also went after senior White House aides who were there – including spokeswoman Sarah Sanders and adviser Kellyanne Conway.

Ms. Sanders sat at the head table, with cameras capturing her every reaction as Wolf called her an “Uncle Tom” for white women and compared her to the grim Aunt Lydia on the dystopian TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf said. “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

Having missed the dinner, but seen the Twitter-verse explode in its wake, I was actually prepared for worse. I had seen the tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman defending Sanders against attacks on her physical appearance and praising her for not walking out.

As I watched a video of Wolf’s speech Sunday night, I wondered: Where was the mockery of Sanders’s appearance? The smoky eye? Maybe I’m being too literal. Wolf did attack Sanders, right to her face. And even in an age of declining civility, it felt jarring.

But Wolf was just doing what standup comedians do – they mock people, they tell off-color jokes, they cross the line. Past comedians at White House Correspondents’ Dinners have done the same, including Stephen Colbert’s infamous trashing of President George W. Bush (and the media) at the 2006 dinner.

The difference now is that Trump is president, and he is waging war on the media.

Monday morning, Trump tweeted that the correspondents’ dinner was “a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country,” proclaiming it “DEAD.”

By inviting Wolf, the White House Correspondents’ Association effectively walked into a trap. Back in February, in announcing Wolf as the dinner speaker, WHCA president Margaret Talev praised her “truth-to-power style” and “feminist edge.” So the WHCA knew up front what it was likely to get.

After the dinner, Ms. Talev, a White House reporter for Bloomberg, put out a statement saying that “unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit” of the WHCA’s mission, which is to promote freedom of the press and give out scholarships.

A red-carpet festival of chumminess

But the real problem isn’t that the WHCA invited the wrong speaker. It’s the way these dinners have evolved. They have turned into televised, red-carpet festivals of chumminess, featuring reporters, government officials, and other denizens of the “Washington swamp.” In past years, the dinners have featured numerous Hollywood stars.

It is exactly what Trump was elected to fight. Now, the WHCA is pledging to rethink its dinner altogether.

The idea of having a dinner isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s good for officials and reporters to get to know each other a bit as people.

Washington’s other annual press gala, the smaller, un-televised Gridiron Dinner, managed to bring together Trump, Vice President Pence, their wives, and senior reporters just two months ago without incident. There, reporters (including yours truly) put on satirical skits, which aim to “singe, but never burn.” Trump tweeted afterward that he had “great fun.”

The WHCA, by contrast, invites an edgy comedian to “entertain” its dinner, and lets him or her rip. The remarks are not vetted in advance.

As for me, I was sorry to miss Saturday’s dinner, but proud to represent the White House press corps by doing “pool duty.” Journalism is often a team sport, and as I type this, I am reminded of the larger principles involved.

News alerts report that ten journalists were killed in Afghanistan today. Freedom of the press, and the ability to do our jobs without fear, is nonnegotiable.

Fancy dinners, we can do without.

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